Set Goals to Guide Your Communication Investment


From marketing to plant operations to compliance and safety, every corporate department, every important initiative, has a written plan with goals. Risk communication efforts, unfortunately, often fall through the cracks somewhere between marketing and environmental, health and safety departments. They bubble up from permit applications, accidental releases, emerging contaminant concerns or similar issues. They often suffer from lack of sound strategies, commitment, and resources. Ironically, many end up consuming vast resources, as attorneys and consultants are hustled on board for damage control.

While risk communication efforts typically stem from episodic needs, they should be handled in a proactive, not reactive, manner. Proactive planning helps you target resources, build trust, and support the long-term interests of your organization. Reactive risk communication, on the other hand, often wastes time and money, erodes trust, and jeopardizes progress.

Align Your Plans to Your Mission

Operating with integrity entails consistently communicating and modeling core values at every level within the organization. Thus, all communication plans should reflect organizational missions and visions.

As an example, nearly all corporate visions identify operating in a sustainable manner as a core principle. This might manifest in the angle or selection of stories written for social media feeds. As another example, commitment to transparency might result in recommending earlier or more public information sessions than what's required by law when permitting a new operation.


"Our vision is to be the world's leading coatings company by consistently delivering high-quality, innovative and sustainable solutions that customers trust to protect and beautify their products and surroundings. This vision will guide us on our journey toward our common goals and principles."

PPG Vision,

".. .being a good corporate citizen is not only the right thing to do, it is also essential to our success." "If we are to succeed in business, we must do it on principles that are honest, fair, lawful and just."

Principles espoused in 2017 U.S. Steel Sustainability Report, https://

Being a good neighbor might mean that a higher percentage of charitable dollars be earmarked for local giving or hands-on projects rather than for regional or national donation campaigns. It may also mean that you invite your local fire department and first responders to practice mock emergencies with you. In these examples, walking the talk is both incorporated into planning and on display for stakeholders to see. As shown in Table 3.1, aligned, proactive communication programs reap numerous benefits over piecemeal, reactive programs.


Proactive Versus Reactive Communication

Proactive Communication

Reactive Communication

Thinks long-term

Thinks short-term

Builds good will for future dialogue

Jeopardizes future good will for short-term gains

Sets the stage for success

Ignores tripping hazards and obstacles

Achieves buy-in and consistency at all organizational levels

Lacks buy-in and consistency across organization

Targets resources where they are most effective

Scatters resources among seemingly pressing issues

Builds collective knowledge of successful strategies and actions

Fades from organizational memory

Know Your Purpose and Objectives

No pen should touch paper, no finger should strike a key, until you know what you want to achieve. As a rule of thumb, you should include three, and no more than five, goals for your communication plans. Each goal should be:

  • Aligned—consistent with the company's mission statements and policies.
  • Actionable—doable and recordable, not lofty and esoteric.
  • Appropriate—meets your needs and supports your objectives.
  • Realistic—obtainable under your circumstances and restrictions.
  • Measurable—can be quantified and tracked.

Most communications practitioners will advise that you break your guiding information into goals, objectives, and strategies. Goals describe where you want to wind up. Objectives are specific steps you take to achieve your goals, and strategies are the road maps for your objectives. For most projects, however, combining the goals, objectives and strategies into "purpose and objectives" or "strategy and approach" will sufficiently guide your plan.

By putting your goals in writing, you provide common ground for everyone involved in the communication effort, including consultants. Everyone should be on the same page, and should understand what a win would look like for your effort.

As an example, a goal in a transmission line siting project might be to achieve a public participation process that exceeds both regulatory requirements and the stated expectations of the siting board. A supporting objective might be to make every effort with stakeholders to find an acceptable route such that a reasonable third-party observer would conclude that the stakeholders had every opportunity to find an acceptable route. In this case, a supporting strategy might be to conduct joint fact finding with stakeholders in selecting route alternatives.

Approaches to communication efforts will vary depending on the purpose and the audience you want to reach. These in turn will directly impact the messages you develop. Similar to purpose and objectives, key messages will provide lane markers and guardrails for your efforts (more on developing key messages in Chapter 4).

Once you have established your purpose and objectives, you can determine the actions required to support them (often referred to as "tactics"). This is your to-do list for executing your plan. While many risk communication efforts start with a to-do list, the most effective begin with purpose.

Set Timelines and Budgets

No plan is complete without a timeline and a budget. For corporate communication plans and crisis communication plans, a timeline may simply be a requirement to review and update the plan once per year. In this case, the budget would cover the review plus any annual costs. For example, annual costs for your crisis communication plan may include communications training and/or desktop or mock drills. These may or may not be tied to emergency drills conducted by your environmental, health, and safety (EHS) department.

For project-specific risk communication efforts, it may be tempting to simply run an open-ended campaign on the assumption it will conclude with the project. However, binding your project with a budget and timeframe provides more clarity and objectivity. If things are going fine, you can always extend or rerun the plan, with or without adjustments.

Most importantly, written timelines and budgets secure advanced approval by upper management. Without the approval of those controlling purse strings, communication efforts are usually last in line for funding and first in line at the chopping block—despite the fact that business and risk managers consistently rate communication as a core competency and poor communications as a major business risk (Project Management Institute, 2013). Moreover, without being a line item in an annual budget, proactive communication plans go by the wayside, which means even crisis communication plans gather dust and fade from memory.

Plan to Evaluate and Realign

Communication efforts take time and resources. They are rarely one-offs, and they can impact more than your bottom line. Thus, they are worth being evaluated—both to realign current efforts where necessary and to make future efforts more successful.

One obvious means of evaluation is to determine whether or not you met your objectives. Another means of evaluation is to revisit the research you conducted at the outset and compare the metrics. For instance, if you relied on news clippings and interviews to gauge stakeholder sentiment before starting, you can do so again to measure where you stand at the conclusion. Unless a communication plan covers a rapid time period, it is often helpful to conduct a midcourse evaluation to determine whether you are on target. A midcourse evaluation allows you to realign your efforts and reassign resources to get the biggest bang for your buck. A note of caution here: While adjusting tactics makes sense, changing your metrics does not. If metrics are changed midcourse, post-project evaluations lose their value.

What is in a Risk Communication Plan

Communications planning at the corporate level is often tied to marketing and public relations initiatives. Thus, plans at this level may include SWOT analyses (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) and other marketing evaluations not directly related to environmental and health risk communication. Other elements of corporate communication plans, however, mirror components of facility and project plans—purpose, background, roles and responsibilities, strategies, action items, schedule, budget, and evaluation. Table 3.2 lists information typically contained in a project communication plan involving environmental and health risks.

Planning for a Crisis—It’s Not If, But When

Work at your facility is going along normally. Then, without warning, something terribly wrong happens. The normal flow of business comes to an abrupt halt. Without a crisis communication plan, chaos may ensue, and what may have turned out to be a minor emergency turns into a prolonged crisis.

As Steven Fink (2013) notes in Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message, crisis in business is as inevitable as death and taxes; it is not a question of if, but rather when. Crises come in all shapes and sizes, from major


Example of Information to Include in a Risk Communication Plan

Purpose and Objectives


Communication Team

Communication Risks and Mitigations

Key Messages

Communication Tools and Activities

Action Timeline and Calendar

Estimated Costs

Performance Evaluation

Attachments/Inserts/Stand Alones: Project team contacts Media contacts Elected officials Mailing list

Website and social media policies Project fact sheets

News releases and standby statements

accidental releases to rumor mongering by a disgruntled employee to natural disasters. Handling the facts on the ground can be a challenge. With the added pressures of social media, cell phone videos, and outrage culture, it can be a calamity.

Never being caught up in a controversy may not mean that you are doing everything right, it could just be that you have been lucky so far.

Fortunately, however, you have strategies and tools at your disposal to help prepare your business for navigating a crisis. Use them, and you can minimize the damages, possibly even coming out stronger on the other side. Ignore them, and you increase your chances of a scorched reputation, a bruised bottom line, or worse.


  • • Research—Identify your vulnerabilities and gather needed contact information.
  • • Action Plan—Outline what needs to be done to mitigate the risks (or respond to emergencies if crisis planning).
  • • Communicate—Educate your employees and train them on the plan.
  • • Evaluate—Assess how you are doing (or for emergency plans, test them out before a crisis). Revise as necessary, and do it again.
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